Monday Jun 23, 2008

Working from Home (or anywhere)

I've been thinking about giving up my office and engaging Sun's work from home program. I've always supported the notion of working from home -- or wherever you need to work from given the circumstances of your projects and your geography. Place shouldn't matter. Results should matter. Being tied to an office as the only place of work is outdated at best. But I also value the concept of everyone getting together in the same space at times because I believe that face-to-face contact is essential to getting quality work done over the long term. Local teams can get together weekly in the office for meetings and white board sessions, and distributed teams can get together quarterly or bi-annually. And in between team meetings, various members can be interacting at conferences or user groups. In other words, there needs to be a balance of face-to-face and digital-phone relationships. Everyone has a different opinion about what the mix should be, but pretty much everyone who values innovation believes that a variety of work experiences is necessary and the key to that is flexibility.

But many times working from home doesn't fit for some people. They miss the office interactions that proximity enables. And that's real. I have certainly experienced that there is great benefit to being close to others and close the action if an organization is centralized. The "bump-into" factor can be a significant cultural bit on some teams, and that puts remote employees at a tremendous disadvantage. However, I have an interesting twist to this. I live in Japan. Just outside Tokyo. And I go to the office every day, yet 99% of my activities are global. I actually do very little work in Japan with the Sun Japanese team for the Japanese market on the Japanese time zone. The cultural and language barriers are gigantic for a solo American to focus on the Japanese market, and also I'm the only Westerner as far as the eye can see around here at Sun. As a result, I'm actually working more and more on a US schedule so I can connect to my core team in California. So, that means I work most nights and early mornings to get the guys in the US and Europe on the phone live. I find that real time communications -- phone and email -- is the most effective way to compensate for the distance and time problem I live with every day. When you are responding to things 10 hours later than everyone else it's just too late. Over time, the conversation simply moves on without you and you are slowly forgotten. I can give many examples of this. It's real. To compensate, you over work so you are on the same time zones as whoever you are working with 10,000 miles away. That's not a good long term strategy because over time you simply die.

So, real time interaction with a distributed team is absolutely critical if you have no local team that forms the base of your job. That's the key. Now, most Asia Pacific Sun employees eventually cross over and interact with the US and/or Europe at odd times of the day for meetings and such, but for me working at odd hours is quite literally my entire job. And it's exhausting. It does wonders for the family life, too. Not to mention the early death part. So, that's why I'm thinking about doing the work-from-home program. The team I work for is spread out in six cities on three continents. For me, I come to the office to get in to Tokyo, but it's not really necessary, and at this point I'd argue it's wasteful. At the very least I can save the commute time (45 mins each way standing on painfully packed trains). I can walk my daughter to kindergarten and back 10x during that commute time to get to an office where I have no real day-to-day interaction with anyone there. Or I can sleep, too. An extra hour and a half of sleep would come in handy -- especially on my 22 hour days. Perhaps by working from home I can get more of my main tasks done, and then when there are occasional opportunities for Japan-specific projects I can take better advantage of them. We'll see. I'm just thinking about it. Two things are clear, though: I have little time or patience for inefficiency anymore, and no one in my position does what I do. They are all global employees working from home.

I'm off to Prague tomorrow ...

Sunday Sep 16, 2007

Mary's Little Kid

The first day of school and Open Work: "Today was the first day of school. And as you (regular) readers know, I am a happily married working mother of three school-age children. Today, I worked from home. Which meant when my kids walked in the door after their first day of school was done, I was here. I went into the living room to sit with them for a few mins and find out how their day went. My fourth grader had a really good day. She was so happy and excited and eager to tell me the story of how things went. She jumped from couch to couch to coffee table to couch and for 20 mins she talked non-stop, the whole time jumping from couch to couch and never touching the floor. These 20 minutes were the most precious part of my day today. The fear and anxiety my kid had in the morning melted into great joy, excitement and anticipation. I got to be part of that thanks to Open Work. What a gift. What an incredible and precious gift. I'm grateful for it." -- Mary Smaragdis


Tuesday Sep 04, 2007


At I.B.M., a Vacation Anytime, or Maybe None: "For the past few years, employees at all levels have made informal arrangements with their direct supervisors, guided mainly by their ability to get their work done on time." -- New York Times

There are other companies cited in the article doing interesting things in HR as well. Sun in the U.S. does a very good job on this issue, too. It all comes down to trust and treating people like adults. But the article also cites the influence of "peer pressure" at work. Pressure -- both good and bad -- among peers probably influences your productivity as much as any corporate policy directed down from the top. So we can't always blame the company if we are treating each other like children. Fortunately, there are usually more than enough really excellent role models to hang out with so the anti-bodies aren't so bad.

Saturday Sep 01, 2007

A Steve Ballmer Job Interview

How To Make A Microserf Smile: "Ballmer decided he needed a new human resources chief, someone to help improve the mood. Rather than promoting an HR professional or looking outside, he turned to perhaps the most unlikely candidate on his staff, a veteran product manager named Lisa Brummel. When Ballmer floated the HR job in April, 2005, Brummel said: No way. But Ballmer wasn't about to take no for an answer. Picking up a traveling golf putter, the Microsoft chief started taking it apart as he barreled around Brummel's office, hammering home why she was the perfect candidate. As an outsider unsullied by HR dogma, he said, she'd bring a fresh approach. Besides, Ballmer argued, Brummel was hugely popular and had the people skills to get the job done. The two went back and forth, with Ballmer slapping Brummel's whiteboard for emphasis and Brummel parrying with: 'But I love doing products.' After more than two hours, Ballmer ended the meeting. By then the putter was in pieces. 'Sorry about the golf club,' he said. Brummel was deeply conflicted ...."

Deeply conflicted? I'll bet. My goodness. I'm just trying to imagine McNealy or Schwartz whipping into my office and breaking my golf club on my white board. I'd be deeply conflicted, too. Never happen, I know. You'd never find a golf club in my office. Or a CEO, actually. But these Microsoft slice-of-life stories never cease to amaze me. What's a "traveling golf putter" anyway?

Sunday Jul 08, 2007

Employee Performance

The Work Force of One: "The growing recognition that business results are largely attributable to employee performance is leading many executives to seek creative ways of significantly improving that performance." -- Susan Cantrell, Wall Street Journal.

This is so true. And refreshing to hear, too. The article outlines some ways that companies are re-thinking how they manage human talent. Hint: flexibility and customization provide the basis of the most effective techniques.


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